Executive Summary: Save a few very minor gripes, this car is absolutely brilliant, both in its class and beyond, offering incredible value, and a blend of performance, quality, fun and economy that cannot be touched by much of anything on the US market today.
First off, I consider it presumptuous that anyone would care to hear my thoughts or opinions on this vehicle. There are plenty of reviews out there, and I am not attempting to best their exhaustiveness or accuracy. I could go into an excruciating amount of detail about nearly every aspect of the vehicle, but such an extensive review takes a lot of editorial work. What I will offer is my opinion as an experienced mechanical engineer who is into cars, and will try to relay facts relevant to anyone interested in this vehicle, and to common questions and issues. It might be a bit biased, being the diesel lover I am, but I am happy to give objective comparisons/critiques and answer questions if you ask. I will try to avoid subjective commentary, outside of the dedicated section. This will be a review of the car as a whole, both generally and specific to TDI tech.
My background as a buyer:
I wasn't really planning on getting a Golf TDI. Coming from original ownership of a heavily sport-modified, lowered(love those Bilstein Sports) and chipped 1998 MkIII Jetta TDI (now with 200kmi on it), I have for years had my sights set on sports sedan from Audi or BMW with a 3.0L turbodiesel power plant. I have intimate experience with a 2001 325i. I wanted power and handling performance. When I heard of the Golf TDI being offered, I figured it was not quite enough, too little power being the biggest complaint. Yet I knew the Golf was a possibility.
Then I saw promotional pictures of a Shark Blue 4 door, and rather quickly started to fawn over it.
I'm passionate about cars, and engineering. I can appreciate cars of all sorts. I know virtually all the features and chassis aspects, little amenities and techno gadgets that are available on higher end vehicles, and I knew what I would be missing (in principle at least) and what I ultimately cared about. So, if I seem easily impressed, just keep this in mind. In this running, I was after something specific - a sporting and refined diesel daily driver - and that narrowed things down a lot. In the end, Audi offered very little diesel to choose from, and BMW was close but not close enough with their deal-breaking slushbox in the 335d. I should note also I strongly considered the Jetta Sportwagen TDI, but decided the MkVI improvements and features, sport suspension, lower weight, and various other differences of the Golf were too appealing to pass up.
I test drove several vehicles - an X535D (couldnt find a 335D to test drive, and really only wanted to experience the engine), GTI, and several variations of 2.0 CR TDI, including Jetta TDI, Jetta Sportwagen TDI, and a few Golf TDIs with DSG and manual. Didnt even bother cross shopping against Audi A3 TDI - I had discounted it on paper. I spent months reading reviews, regularly visiting dealerships, attending car shows (great cut-away displays of the 2.0CR TDI engine), and examining every detail of the design of the Jetta and Golf. I did take a look at certain competitors, like Mazda 3 and Honda Insight (the latter of which I test drove for fun).
After 12 years, and with my Jetta showing its age, I was desperately ready for something new, and the more I looked at the Golf, the more I knew it was my next car. I ordered her in mid-January 2010 and took delivery in mid-April, and have over 7000 miles on her now.
She is 4 door, MT6, all options but Nav and sunroof, in Shark Blue. I also got the mat kit with rubber mats, but want the carpeted "Golf" mats.
My Jetta would end up blowing a piston before my Golf arrived no less, so the timing was remarkable and fortuitous.
I have to thank the guys at Ontario VW. They were professional, friendly, frank and a pleasure to deal with, and this was after visiting a few other dealerships. They were also very accommodating to my rather “high maintenance” requests. Specifically, the sales manager Tim Franklin, head sales rep Dante, and especially my salesperson Joaquin. Most especially, I was supported from the get go with my interest in placing an order, and I got very lucky in being able to secure a Golf TDI allocation, thanks very much to Tim and the team at Ontario VW.
Subjective impressions / Exterior Design / Looks:
I am absolutely loving this car! And, I'm in love with this car!! She is a blast to drive, holds corners fantastically and with confidence, is built solid, has really comfortable seats, a great sound system, incredible cargo and people moving versatility, awesome mileage, great technology, and I adore the looks! I'm also glad to have the MkVI features and improvements (not found in the 2010 Jettas). Being a German car and VW enthusiast, I love that my Golf was built in Wolfsburg.
She is gorgeous to look at, and an awesome blend of civility, functionality, graceful elegance and understated aggressiveness. I am so glad to have gone with the Shark Blue despite some significant hesitation. She's become a photographic subject like no other to me, and I've developed a complex about constantly admiring her from almost every angle. The look embodies so much of what I love about VW and about German-engineered automobiles. The technical details of the exterior design say a lot about the engineering also – brake cooling ducting, aero turbulators under the rear of the car, recessed windshield wipers, integrated roof spoiler; clean, functional and minimalist, all indicative of solid, purposeful engineering.
Various specific features I love include: interior lighting scheme, with adjustable foot well lights. Xenon lights with AFS. Cornering lights (fog lights turn on when turning tight or indicator is on at a stop). The little details of the wiper system operation. The sound system flexibility and sound quality. The paint color. Sunglass holder. Steering wheel controls. Integral cargo net under the rear boot cover/tray. Frankly, I could go on - I really do love virtually everything about this car.
Interior Design & Driving Experience
Clean, simple, functional, sharp, quality materials, fit, finish and feel. Nothing new here – you've heard it before, just go sit in one for yourself. There is very little lacking. Driver information and control design and placement is excellent of course. Center console lacks storage space (although I like the cup holders and put them to good use), but I find the door pockets and glove box decent in total volume, and I intend to add under-seat drawers and possibly a driver's knee cubby. Lots of nice touches in lighting, accoutrements, instrument layout and functionality.
Overall interior quality is of course very high grade in virtually every aspect, and one really couldn't ask for much more. Where material or installation seems less than fantastic, I find it generally a wise and appropriate engineering choice (for weight, durability and cost balance reasons). I've had no issues with my upholstery cloth.
Seats are very comfortable. I prefer lumbar at most supportive setting. Bolstering can cause a bit of trouble getting in and out, but during driving seems the perfect balance of support and comfort. The semi-automatic seat adjustment controls of the 4 door models achieve a great balance of weight, durability, simplicity and functionality. The worm gear knob in the 2 door models works well, but the motorized recline is quicker, easier, plenty robust, and welcomed, with vertical and fore/aft adjust being better left to manual adjust.
HVAC system has proved quite convenient and easy to use. AC seems more than adequate for multiple people in sticky conditions. While some have complained about the climatic hvac system controls (hard to visually assess), specifically the vent control knob, I find it easy enough to use with a little experience, being operable by feel and sight, by both driver and passenger.
Passenger space is exceptional, especially in the rear. I've been repeatedly impressed, even in comparison to other even larger vehicles. I've had numerous passenger comments reinforcing this. I am 6ft, have no trouble getting 6-footers comfortably in the back seat behind me when driving, and can easily lay my road bicycle in the back with the seats folded down and only front wheel removed. Rear head room is generous. I've slept in the back of my Golf. At 6ft, it's just doable by laying diagonally and having a pillow support lying atop the headrest of the lowered seat back. Not super comfy, but doable - air mattress recommended.
Wiper system gives a uniform fan-shaped spray pattern and performs very well at all speeds. I have had no significant issue with the infamous rear washer nozzle drip, aside from a small bit of drip if the washer was just used and the car allowed to warm up on a hot day.
The MFD functions are mostly very simple, intuitive and useful. In some ways it feels underutilized, knowing there could be so many more features that might be adjustable, or data visible. For example, it would be great if there was a screen that would read all critical trip information at once, so that flipping though screens was not necessary - I fear I'll wear out my steering wheel buttons if I want to simply know my average and instantaneous MPG.
Horn is a little less masculine feeling than my 98 Jetta (which had a pretty burly horn actually), however I think the sound was selected for greater audibility.
Overall quietness in the cabin is exceptional under all conditions. It would be very hard to gauge your speed by wind noise. Some tire/ground sounds do make it in more than others.
Little things I like/love: Front door pockets are molded to hold a 1L water bottle securely. Glove box space and layout is good, and the owner-manual holder could have other special uses down the road. I like the design of the sun visors and their extensibility. Central locking system operation is smart. Emergency flasher button location and the way it stays lightly illuminated. Armrest comfort and ratcheting/extension function. Door chime for lights and "key in ignition" times out after a little while, so you dont have to eternally listen to it if you need your door open.
Little things I don't like: B pillar is a bit wider than the MkIII Jetta I came out of, and I've noticed it's a bit harder to quickly check blind spots when merging. It just takes some adjustment though. Feels like the head restraints block rear vision a tiny bit too, but I havent verified this.
Lighting system is great. AFS Xenons are phenomenal in their overall output, uniformity, color and general road rendition. The dynamic adjustment is noticeable and appreciated, for turning and for dive/squat effects. High beams are impressive, in fact often seeming too bright - the glaring reflections off signs can be an issue. I did compare to the halogen, which are definitely excellent as halogen units go. The cornering lights are always appreciated when making tight turns in poorly lit areas. It literally puts a smile on my face when I look into the dark as I'm about to turn and the dark is illuminated.
Audio system & Bluetooth:
RCD510 touch screen radio is overall awesome. I have installed a 320GB hard drive for it already (must be formatted to FAT32) which works very well. Sometimes while driving, you must brace your hand to reliably hit the proper touch screen "button" zone, lest inertia knock your arm and misplace your press. I'm a bit annoyed that the RCD510 has a pause of variable length between compressed format audio tracks, however with the hard drive it's literally about 1/10s or less.
I opted for Dynaudio sound. Fantastic sound quality - the imaging and clarity have caught me off guard a number of times (self described audiophile). Some small rattles have come about when pushing the system higher under deep bass. These appear to be contained within the doors (which house the speakers) and overall the system is robust and solid/quiet.
Bluetooth is 9w2 and works reasonably well. Lack of full voice activated (true hands free) operation is rather inexcusable, but it's not much trouble to pick up my phone and speed dial a contact anyway. 9w7 may be a resolution, but perhaps a pricey one, and not without compromise.
Of course, the Golf's utility and cargo flexibility is excellent, and has great passenger space while being able to fit and secure plenty of gear and cargo. The seats dont fold perfectly flat from the factory, but it has not been a problem for me whatsoever. It is supposedly possible to remove the seat cushion with some trouble, if one should ever need a flat cargo area.
The small molded foam compartments under the floor carpet are perfect for stowing numerous small utility items and such, including extra oil, a 12V air compressor, can of fix-a-flat, etc. It appears clear to me that the boot floor was designed to accomodate a space-saver spare, so the foam molding can be removed and even more overall cargo volume allowed, I imagine.
I love the mat kit, which comes with velcro-enabled cargo organizing blocks that adhere to the heavy duty trunk mat, allowing tidy and secure cargo locating ability, and adding to the already great cargo securing utility that's built in (grocery bag hooks, cargo netting, under-floor molded foam compartments, integral net underneath boot cover, etc). I do wonder if the mat will be worn down by repeated velcro use.
Engine and running gear refinement:
Engine is a tiny bit gruff compared to gassers, and it's no inline 6, but it's quiet and smooth at cruise and idle. Shifting is predictable and consistent, and throws are perfectly acceptable and "wristable" for me. I have not missed a shift yet that I can recall.
Clutch operation is quite acceptable to me. It may or may not have fast uptake, or an interesting throw, but it is quite drivable with a little practice. I've driven it in all sorts of conditions, including all over San Fransisco. Save extreme inclines, stalling hasnt been much of a problem, although definitely more of a problem than on my 98 TDI.
Handling / suspension / steering:
Handling is awesome. Sport suspension is a great balance of comfort and responsiveness. High speed stability and transient response is excellent - sharp, controllable, and very confidence inspiring. I'm sure the GTI trumps it, but it's still quicker than necessary for public roads. Car feels planted to the ground even at speeds around 100mph. Drop is virtually perfect. Seems the 4 door has a slightly lower-sitting rear than the 2 door, and I love the look. Couldn't have made it look better myself.
I've already had to make an emergency lane change, and did so with aplomb, thanks in part to the ESP (light came on). Not happy about having to do it, but I had no choice, and glad about the performance.
I find the 17” wheels a nearly perfect balance of handling performance, looks, durability, efficiency and flexibility. Also, the speedometer seems quite accurate with the 225/45R17 tires. The stock Continental A/S tires give good road holding, nearly nonexistent tire squeal, are fairly quiet, and so far feel good in the wet.
I've had her in light snow and freezing weather. ASR/EDL worked and helped noticeably. No issue with hand brake turns of course.
All the while, comfort is good, although on some of the harsh, nasty excuse for pavement that I often drive on, the rigid chassis makes for a significant mid-range frequency resonant drone in the cabin, but I can't complain about that - I think it comes with the stiffer chassis, unless a lot of heavy sound insulation is added.
Mulholland drive was a blast, had no problem outpacing a late model Honda Accord (who was very clearly pushing it).
Steering feel is quite good IMO. Feedback feels fine to me, and assist is variable effect of course, getting lessened with speed. Only issue I've noticed is a sense of floatiness at speed (like I'm constantly having to consciously make small steering adjustments), but I cannot be sure I'm not just tired.
I've yet to notice ESP coming on during even aggressive driving. Any intrusion has been transparent.
Have yet to find the handling limits of the suspension on public roads. Sure, she'll plow if I come into a corner hard on the brakes. Beyond that, turn in is excellent and relatively neutral feeling. I'm blown away by the handling on basic A/S tires and can see how the GTI could be a most excellent handler. Can't wait to get summer tires on her.
Engine performance is solid and not lacking except for street racers. I find no problem merging, passing, accelerating to triple digits, or just zipping into holes in traffic, city and highway. Even with several passengers, the hit to acceleration isnt too painful. I've even given a few fast cars a run for their money, or at least inspired them to use their power (911 Porsche and Dodge Magnum).
Around town, 2nd and 3rd gear give plenty of action, satisfaction and capability, with 3rd handling anything from 15mph-75mph. 4th and 5th handle high speed power needs nicely. 6th gear is an overdrive for fuel economy (~175mph at redline), and a great gearing I think, unless you usually drive on 55mph highways (because rpms fall low enough to make turbo lag a serious concern; ~55mph is this car's sweet spot for fuel economy though).
Idle speed is ~800rpm, and varies slightly depending on driving/engine conditions; redline of course is 5000rpm but you'll want to shift well before that, say around 4200-4400rpm.
Top gear acceleration seems remarkable at typical highway speeds, considering the overdrive gearing. At sea level, I can accelerate pretty well up a 12%+ grade in top gear. It is more than enough for leisurely passing, but you'll definitely want to downshift for maximum oomph.
Turbo lag is definitely a reality that must be considered, but it is generally only significantly noticeable below 1600rpm, and at higher rpms only when shifting. In-gear throttle response above 2500rpm (where you are anyway if you're really needing performance) is rapid enough for all but track competition, in my opinion.
I think the advertised 0-60mph time of 8.6s doesnt really represent the engine's performance properly. This is because of two factors: 1) there is probably an extra shift compared to gas cars, which adds a fraction of a second, and 2) the torque character of the diesel means that the car out-accelerates the turbo in 1st gear, so you dont ever quite get full "impulse" from about 0-30mph.
I've noticed that heavy throttle below 1300rpm in high gear gives a bit of engine lugging/shudder, and I avoid it.
Have not experienced brake fade or problems yet. Havent totally punished them, but have driven aggressively at high speed downhill, with no issues.
Aero effects really start to be felt in this hatch, as compared to a sedan, around 100mph, where the more dramatic acceleration of the 70-100mph range rapidly starts to fade.
Oil consumption has been impressive - I was above 2/3 on the dip stick at 10kmi.
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